A new report from the Tennessee Comptroller’s office describes a tangled web of fraud, misspending and outright lies at the Upper Cumberland Development District. The agency’s director used a million-and-half dollar assisted living facility near Cookeville as her personal home and cash cow.
Investigators found only four senior citizens housed in spartan quarters. Meanwhile, UCDD director Wendy Askins not only lived rent-free in the luxurious and much larger main house, but was reimbursed for things like dog food, energy drinks and 3D glasses.
According to the report, Askins had her staff alter the minutes of a board meeting to say that she had permission to transfer nearly 300-thousand dollars into the home. A check earmarked for Meals on Wheels was deposited in the facility’s account. It also finds she created a for-profit company that did business almost exclusively with the handful of seniors who lived there.
She allegedly sold some of her family’s old belongings to the agency, claiming they would be used at a second and as-yet unbuilt facility. The UCDD bought the used furniture, televisions and exercise equipment at the full retail price the family had originally paid. What’s more, the items were mostly just put into storage after the transaction.
One exception was a lawnmower belonging to Askins’ stepbrother, who was also an employee of the UCDD. The agency purchased the mower, then turned around and sold it at a profit to the Cumberland Regional Development Corporation. That’s an arm of the UCDD that runs federally-funded housing programs in the region. Not only did the CRDC staff not want or need a mower, they found it needed extensive repairs.
News reports this spring indicated that Askins went overboard providing cell phones to employees. The report confirms that phones and coverage plans for 45 employees cost the UCDD more than $66,000 in one year’s time. It also says neither Askins nor her daughter returned their smartphones when they quit earlier this year.
While the investigators found little evidence of oversight by the agency’s board, they did find at least one instance in which the people charged with watching out for misdeeds benefitted from one. The report shows they were among the 140 guests at a social event Askins paid for with thousands of dollars in agency funds at a local winery.
The report also alleges Askins got agency money to cater a unnamed state legislator’s campaign event by lying. She claimed the funds would be used on area youth, but instead deposited it in her own bank account and wrote a personal check to the caterer.
The audit finds problems going as far back as 2008. The case is now in the hands of the District Attorney’s office.